Part 2 — Southern France Aix-en-Provence to Luberon
So we’re heading south in the Provence to take in some of the bigger attractions of the area. Don’t get too distracted by them or you’ll run out of time to see some outstanding smaller, intimate and incredible sites.
Pont Du Gard and Uzés
From Avignon go east again, into the Gard region, for the Pont du Gard, a three-story, arched, Roman aqueduct bridge spanning the Gardon River 273 m long and 49 m above the water. The bridge took several thousand men five years to build using 50,400 tons of local limestone! It is a feat of engineering and a testament to the might and strength of the Roman Empire.
If you are wandering and want to explore a gorgeous village, then don’t miss Uzés, only about 20 minutes further north-east of the Pont du Gard. Uzés was once home to the silk worm industry employing over 2000 people in the 18th-century. The ducal chateau, still owned by the d’Uzés family has great views from its’ Bermonde Tower, including the 12th-century Finestrelle Tower. Wandering the streets you will see palatial town residences, courtyards and squares. On Wednesday and Saturdays in the Place aux Herbes you’ll find the village market with great local produce to buy for a picnic, or walk the surrounding arcades to find a coffee while looking at the locals haggle!
Leaving Uzés head south approximately 40 minutes to the Rhône River and the town of Tarascon. On the other side of the river is the similarly sized town of Beaucaire. Directly opposite each other and connected by several bridges, Beaucaire and Tarascon effectively constitute one town, with about 30,000 inhabitants.
The town is renowned for 3 main sites: the mediaeval castle and the collegiate church, plus we had a great morning wandering the town market.
Did you guess we like markets yet?
Église collégiale Ste-Marthe (St Martha’s Collegiate Church) is where, according to a local tradition, the biblical figure Martha is buried. The church built half-Romanesque was dedicated in 1197 and enlarged in the Gothic style in the 14th century. The crypt dates from the 3rd century but houses the relics of Martha in a sarcophagus of the fourth century.
The current castle of Tarascon was started in 1401 by Louis II of Anjou after the previous castle was destroyed. The construction was continued by his first son, Louis III of Anjou, and was completed in 1449 by his second son, René I of Naples. Because of this, the castle is often referred to as “le château du Roi René” (King René’s castle).
In spite of its massive size beside the Rhône, the interior architecture and excellent state of preservation make this one of the finest medieval French castles. There are two independent parts: the southern, stately home, flanked by round towers on the city side and river side with walls of up to 48 m high with square towers on the northern side.
Near the town is the Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet, belonging to the Norbertine Order renowned for creating many beers since the 12th century, including those of Leffe and Grimbergen, to name but two. This Abbey, however changed its tack to create liqueurs, who said the church wasn’t innovative.
The Abbey offers three liqueurs, natural, handcrafted elixirs, manufactured by the Eyguebelle distillery: “Liqueur Norbertine” (43 °), “Verbena Norbertine” (53 °), and “Norbertine” (42 °).
The abbey of the 12th century was extended in the 19th, including the construction of an imposing abbey church (dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph) then elevated to a basilica by Pope John Paul II.
The alternative route to take from Tarascan is due west, through Saint-Remy-de-Provence to the area of Luberon where Peter Mayle wrote his famous bestseller, “A Year in Provence”.
The Luberon or Luberon Massif (mountain range) is composed of three mountain ranges: (from west to east) the Little Luberon, the Big Luberon and the Oriental Luberon. The valleys north and south of them contain a number of towns and villages often perched on the sides of the cliffs.
The number of people varies greatly between winter and summer, due to a massive influx of tourists during the warm season, so be aware booking accommodation in summer is essential.
Basically, you need to explore and check out the places that interest you. The history, beauty and sites abound, or you can just find a high spot and check out the view whilst you eat and drink! So some towns I’d visit are: Loumarin, Venasque, Menerbes, Roussillon, Gordes and maybe Apt, home of candied fruit.
Aix-en-Provence is worth a visit, but it is full of tourists almost year round. Getting accommodation is hard and so I suggest you book well in advance! Founded by Sextius, a Roman, for the hot springs and filled with fountains, squares and boulevards, the old town is a walkers paradise.
The central boulevard is the Cours Mirabeau, a wide thoroughfare, planted with double rows of plane-trees, bordered by fine houses and decorated by fountains. It follows the line of the old city wall and divides the town into two sections. The new town extends to the south and west; the old town, with its narrow, irregular streets and its old mansions dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, lies to the north.
Along the Cours Mirabeau, you will find Deux Garçons, the most famous brasserie in Aix. Built in 1792, it has been frequented by the likes of Paul Cézanne, Émile Zola and Ernest Hemingway. Also, the boulevard hosts markets Tuesdays and Saturdays that are more directed to the tourists with outrageous tourist prices!
Aix is a city of thousand fountains. Most notable, in the Quartier Mazarin, is the 17th-century Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins (Fountain of the Four Dolphins), designed by Jean-Claude Rambot, and the three fountains down the central Cours Mirabeau: At the top, a 19th-century fountain depicts the “good king” René holding the Muscat grapes that he introduced to Provence in the 15th century. Halfway down, is a natural hot water fountain (34 °C), covered in moss, dating back to the Romans. At the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau, at La Rotonde, stands a fountain from 1860 with three giant statues representing art, justice and agriculture. In the older part of Aix, there are also fountains of note in the Place d’Albertas and the Place des Trois-Ormeaux.
Other sites, recommended but not limited to, include:
1. The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour (Aix Cathedral), situated in the northern, medieval part of Aix. Built on the site of a former Roman forum and an adjacent basilica, including a richly decorated portal in the Gothic style with doors elaborately carved in walnut.
2. In the Place de Hôtel de Ville, you will find the mayoral building built in the 17th-century, a clock-tower erected in 1510, and also the former Corn Exchange (1759–1761) (Halle de Grains). This ornately decorated 18th-century building is nearby the remarkable thermal springs, containing lime and carbonic acid, that first drew the Romans to Aix and gave it the name Aquae Sextiae.
3. South of the Cours Mirabeau is the Quartier Mazarin. This residential district was constructed for the gentry in the last half of the 17th century and contains several notable houses. The 13th-century church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte contains valuable pictures and a recently restored organ. Next to it is the Musée Granet, devoted to European painting and sculpture.
So from here we’re going to the coast. To Marseille, two of my favourite coastal villages, Cassis and La Ciotat and the Côte d’Azur! I hope you are enjoying this series on the Provence area. Let me know if you have any places you want to tell people about. Write me a paragraph and I’ll include it in a newsletter on the area.
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